Building Better Energy Crops

Seeds will play a vital role in the advancement of the crops needed to produce second-generation biofuels. EPM talks to Ceres Inc., a seed plant genomics firm, about its now widely available commercial energy crop seed and the switchgrass seed it is offering for the 2009 planting season.
By Kris Bevill | September 08, 2008
Referring to his slender 6-feet-6-inch frame, Ceres Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Hamilton says that he personifies two of the traits his research team would like to perfect in switchgrass and other energy crops. The taller and skinnier each plant is, the more yield farmers will be able to coax out of every acre. So short plants bewareif Hamilton and his staff have their way those plants' days are numbered.

That's the gist of genetic engineering. Got floppy plants? Make them more rigid. Need them taller, shorter, greener, disease or drought-resistant? No problem. Well, it's not quite that easy. However, when listening to Hamilton talk about the work of the 120 employees at Ceres' laboratory in Thousand Oaks, Calif., it's all in a day's work. Researchers in the Los Angeles suburb spend their time examining specimens and altering genes with the goal of making significant changes to the way crops grow and respond to environmental factors so that farmers can grow more productive cropsand in turn provide the world with more efficient, cost-effective fuel.

During a tour of the laboratory, Hamilton explains that by applying the same technology used in the Human Genome Project, Ceres researchers have sequenced more than 70,000 plant genes since the company was founded in 1997. New technology continues to speed the process of gene sequencing, allowing for ever-increasing numbers of genes to be sequenced on a daily basis. Gary Koppenjan, Ceres corporate communications manager, says there are machines available today that can sequence 1 million base pairs per day, compared with the 1,000 base pairs per week that Hamilton was able to sequence as a graduate student two decades ago. That means ethanol producers have a better chance of one day having a constant supply of the perfect energy crop. Hamilton says that the perfect crop has optimized architecture (the tall and skinny part), and is a deep-rooted perennial that is easily propagated. He's confident Ceres is close to producing seed for the perfect energy crop.

Ceres' modified Human Genome Project process begins when researchers sequence the plant DNA. After discovering the plant's genes and their functions, scientists can then determine the gene's potential use. Improvements can then be made to the plants genetic make-upone gene at a time. It's a painstaking process, but "we're scientists," Hamilton says. "We like to control everything." Since 1997, Ceres researchers have discovered genes that boost biomass yields, reduce nitrogen applications and increase tolerance to drought, cold and salt. The company owns exclusive rights to more than 40 U.S. and foreign patents and has applications pending for hundreds more patents.

Focus on Energy
A healthy international debate has been waged for some time now concerning the use of genetically modified crops. Hamilton is not bothered by skeptics because he believes the public can draw a distinction between modified plants that are grown for food and those that are grown for fuel. When confronted with that skepticism, Hamilton argues that gene modification is necessary. No agriculture is natural, he says. It's a uniquely human activity that has been under development for only the past 10,000 years. Considering that land plants first appeared 400 million years ago, Hamilton makes his point that agriculture is a recent phenomenon that should be continually improved.

At Ceres the focus is on energy , but that's not to say the company has never worked with traditional row crops. In the beginning, researchers at Ceres worked with more traditional crops such as corn and soybeans and served as a gene and trait provider for traditional row crop seed companies. But Ceres' specialty has always been developing technology, Koppenjan says. The focus of that work has shifted toward the development of seed for energy crops. "We've always been more of the technology development platform company," Koppenjan says. "Now we're taking that same technology and applying it to crops that historically haven't received a lot of plant breeding and technology." Switchgrass, miscanthus and sorghum are the energy crops that Ceres' researchers believe have the most potential and are the focus of current studies.

The advancements made by Ceres' researchers will contribute greatly to the advancement of energy crops and second-generation biofuels. Hamilton's resolution and commitment to the matter is clear when he speaks about the future of biofuels in the United States. He compares the establishment of cellulosic biorefineries to the flat-screen TV market. "The first few are going to be very expensive, but the key is to get the first few built so we can work to drive down the cost," he says. If comparing biorefineries to televisions, then a steady supply of feedstock would be the electricity needed to turn them on.

What Comes First?
The balancing act between creating a new feedstock supply and building a new biorefinery poses the "chicken and egg" question. Which comes first? Ceres employs the philosophy that "seed in the ground" and "steel in the ground" happen simultaneously. According to its plan, identifying the location for a cellulosic ethanol production facility and feedstock should be done in conjunction. The first year of a plant's existence will consist of the construction of the facility, while the growers are establishing the perennial feedstock. Year two will be the start-up. The plant will run start-up phases while the growers harvest the first year of feedstock, which will amount to approximately 50 percent of the crop's potential. By year three, the operation should be up and running on both ends. The biorefinery will be able to reach its full capacity and growers will be able to harvest the top yields available from their crops. That's the plan anyway.

Questions remain on both sides of the cellulosic production chain. Biorefineries want to be reassured that ample feedstock supplies will be available. Farmers want a signed contract to supply a business with the crop before they invest their efforts and bankroll into planting and harvesting.

One possible solution to the stand-off could be the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. This new program is part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, more commonly referred to as the Farm Bill. The program aids in the establishment and production of crops that will be used to produce energy. After the producer's potential BCAP project area has been approved, funding will be provided to the producer on an annual basis and will cover up to 75 percent of the cost of establishing a perennial crop, including the cost of seeds and planting. BCAP contracts will be valid for five years for perennial and annual crops, and 15 years for woody biomass. However payments to the grower will be reduced once the producer begins delivering crop to a biorefinery, or uses the crop for anything other than energy production.

Koppenjan says BCAP could certainly help Ceres' business and the sale of its seeds. At press time, the company was preparing to debut its Blade Energy Crops seed business.

Koppenjan says Ceres expects to sell its energy crop seeds to growers who "want to get ahead of the curve" as well as to biorefineries interested in testing the product. The company is offering five seed varietals of switchgrass this fall so that crops can be planted during the 2009 growing season. The EG 1101 and EG 1102 varietals have been bred to prosper in lowland ranges, while the Blackwell and Trailblazer varietals are intended for the southern upland range. One varietal, Sunburst, is a winter hardy switchgrass seed that was designed for the northern Great Plains region. In addition to providing seed, Ceres plans to establish a grower's guide to assist its customers as they establish these new crops. It will take two years for switchgrass stands to become fully mature, but Hamilton says they do expect some commercial harvest to occur in the fall of 2009. At press time, a selling price for the seed had not been established.

Kris Bevill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 373-8044.